At the 2000 Olympic Games, 1995 UC San Diego graduate Julie (Swail) Ertel captained the U.S. Women’s Water Polo team to a silver medal in Sydney, Australia. A two-time water polo national champion and All-American at UCSD, the Irvine resident is now poised to compete in her second Olympics, this time as a member of the U.S. Triathlon team in Beijing, China. Ertel qualified by winning a U.S. Trials event in Tuscaloosa, Ala. With the 2008 Games looming, she took time from her training schedule to talk about the past and the future.
Q After you won the silver medal with the U.S. Water Polo team in 2000 at Sydney, did you ever think you’d make a return trip to the Olympic Games?
Ertel No, going back in water polo, much less another sport, was far from where I thought I’d be. I thought I’d settle down, get a full-time job and possibly get married something a bit more traditional. Then when I was asked by NBC to commentate for the 2004 Olympics, I thought that would be the side of the Olympics with which I’d be involved.
Q How many people do you think have seen your silver medal? Do friends and people you meet still ask to see it?
Ertel I’d estimate that over 8,000 people have seen my medal, and at least 1,000 have tried it on for size. Over the past eight years I’ve done many speaking engagements so that gets the medal around pretty quickly, not to mention my friends and family. The demand does go in spurts though. In the springtime and especially in the year prior to and the six months after the Olympics, I get more requests than normal.
I do, frequently, get asked to see the medal whether at a local running race, shopping, or while out with friend. I love pretending that I have it with me by looking in my shirt or in my purse or bag. It is kind of mean as I watch them get excited at the prospect of seeing it, but eventually, when I produce no medal, they realize that it was kind of a silly question. (I do not wear it on a typical day.)
Q Eight years later, what are the most memorable things from your first Olympics?
Ertel Opening ceremonies was the most memorable Olympic moment. It is something that cannot be duplicated except at the Olympic Games. Walking into the stadium and hearing 100,000 people cheering is overwhelming. Being there, representing my country, marching behind our flag, made me so proud. It reminded me of all of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies I watched as a kid when I was glued to the TV, hoping to catch a glimpse of the athletes that would make our country proud
The second most memorable thing from the Sydney Olympics is living in the Olympic Village. I loved getting to walk around the Village seeing athletes from all over the world with similar goals and mutual respect, living harmoniously in such close quarters. It was a self-contained Village with a dining hall, housing, a large gym, a disco and nightclub, a doctor and sports med facilities, a post office and souvenir shops. If an athlete wanted to, they could sustain themselves in the Olympic Village until the day of their event (It was also nice getting a daily massage!). This time, I will not get to stay in the Olympic Village as much. I will stay there for two days around Opening Ceremonies then head to South Korea to train. When I return to China on the 15th, I will stay in a hotel near the triathlon venue until I’m through competing. I will return to Village after my event when I can explore and enjoy it to the fullest.
Q Can you share something about being an Olympian that most people wouldn’t know?
Ertel Most people should know it, but sometimes forget that Olympians are just ordinary people with extraordinary sporting talents. It is no different than a talented musician or scientist, we all still put on our pants, one leg at a time. We are perceived as superhuman at times but we put in a lot of hard work to get to the Olympics but have similar hopes, dreams and emotions as anyone else.
Q Most sports fans are probably more familiar with the Ironman Triathlon series. What are the Olympic triathlon distances and what are the differences between the two?
Ertel A triathlon is an event that consists of a swim portion, a cycling portion and a run portion. There are several distances including sprint, Olympic or international distance, a ½ Ironman distance and an Ironman distance. The Olympic distance races consist of a 1.5 km swim (.9 miles), a 40 km bike (24.8 miles), and a 10 km run (6.2 miles) while the Ironman distance includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles on the bike and a 26 mile run.
So, aside from the obvious difference in distance, the Olympic distance races on the international circuit allow drafting on the bike. This means that coming out of the water towards the front is critical in order to form a strong pack on the bike. The run portion becomes very important as in many races, the pack coming off the bike can be 30 or more athletes so it turns into a running race. Most triathlons in the U.S. as well as Ironman competitions are non-drafting on the bike which means that individuals ride alone and have to have sufficient space between them and any riders around them. Because of this no more than a few athletes typically enter transition at any one time.
Q Tell us about your transition from water polo to triathlon. How long did it take before you felt like a bona fide triathlete? What is the most difficult aspect for you?
Ertel After the 2000 Olympics, I was on top of the world and felt like I could do anything. I wanted to do something different, to challenge myself in a new way and decided to do a local sprint triathlon just a month after returning from the Games. I enjoyed it and signed up for several more the following year. My cardiovascular system was in great shape from water polo as was my swim and general leg strength which translated well on the bike. The toughest part was picking up the run. I had never run before, nor had I ever done any land-based sports (soccer, basketball, softball, etc.) so had to start from scratch to develop the running muscles, particularly in the lower leg. It was the most challenging part but also the most enjoyable. I loved the challenge and the act of “learning” a new sport. Running is still my favorite of the three sports and the one that I see myself continuing after my triathlon career has ended.
After winning the amateur national championship and world championships in 2002, I turned pro midway through 2003 (this is really just a title that allowed me to race in elite level domestic and international races). Going from amateur triathlete to the professional/elite level and faring well was when I really felt like a bona fide triathlete. But it wasn’t until two years later that I won my first big triathlon in New York City.
Q How does Olympic qualifying occur in triathlon? Tell us about the race where you earned your spot on the 2008 team.
Ertel There are three Olympic qualifying events. The first was in China last year on the Olympic Course. The second was at the Olympic Trials race in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 19, 2008. The top American at both of these races earned a berth. The third and final race will occur June 22 at the Hy-Vee World Cup in Des Moines, Iowa. The third spot will be allocated based on a cumulative score from the three races, dropping the lowest score.
I qualified at the Olympic Trials in Alabama. It was open to athletes from all over the world, but ended up consisting of only U.S. athletes. I had a terrific swim and formed a pack of four on the bike. We stayed together throughout the bike which meant that the Olympic spot would be awarded to the athlete with the fastest run. I had a good transition and started the run about four seconds ahead of the others. There were hundreds of people cheering along the course, many of them collegiate athletes since the collegiate nationals were held earlier that morning. I was totally fueled by the cheers and energy of the crowd and slowly pulled away on each of the four laps of the run to finish 30 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
Q There has been a lot of talk in regard to the air quality in Beijing. Is that something you’re concerned about? Have you competed in Beijing before, and if so, what’s the Olympic course like?
Ertel The air quality will be a concern of mine. I will travel to South Korea to train between Opening Ceremonies and the triathlon event. It is the same time zone and has a similar climate so will be an ideal place to train without concern for air pollution and breathing difficulty.
I competed in the test event in Beijing in 2007, which I used as a dry run for 2008. I stayed in South Korea to train for five days, then went to Beijing and stayed in the same hotel where I’ll stay this year for the race. The course familiarized me with what to expect for the Olympics as it was the exact course that will be used in 2008.
The swim is in a warm water reservoir which will prohibit the use of wetsuits, something that is beneficial to the Americans who tend to be better swimmers. The bike course is eight laps and includes a significant hill just out of transition. This was something of a shock last year, but something for which I’ve been training this year. The run is four loops around a course that has a small hill but where you spend nearly half of the race in front of the grandstands. The weather is expected to be hot and humid so I have been working on hydration strategies this year.
Q Where does your career as a UCSD water polo All-American rank on your list of achievements?
Ertel I am very proud of my achievements at UCSD. Winning two national championships and being named an All-American fall just behind winning an Olympic silver medal in 2000 and making the 2008 triathlon team. But it was definitely the experience at both the Olympics and at UCSD that I savor more than the accolades.
Q In what way did your UCSD experience help you get to where you are now?
Ertel Playing water polo for Denny Harper at UCSD is a large part of why I’ve achieved so much. He taught me about passion for competition and how to handle the “high pressure” competition. Even at our national tournament, he could keep things light by cracking a joke while demanding and demonstrating total focus on our goals. I’ve been able to carry that over into my Olympic water polo and triathlon careers.
Balancing school, athletics and a social life has helped me in my current situation. Throughout the last 12 year competing at the elite level, I have worked either full or part time and have balanced training with family and social events. My typical day now, leading up to the Games, consists of 3-4 hours of training, an hour of recovery (stretching, re-fueling, icing, etc.), and 2-3 hours of media or trip/event planning, and occasionally planning for or doing a speaking event. Without the practice juggling so much as an undergraduate, I don’t think I would be able to do it now.
Q You were married last year to Greg Ertel, a fellow athlete. Has that had an effect on your lifestyle and training?
Ertel Greg and I were married in January of 2007. Marriage has had a positive affect on my training and triathlon career. He trains with me a few times a week but, more importantly, is incredibly supportive of my career. He understands the travel involved with competing and, while it isn’t easy on either one of us, we’ve discussed my goals and see that the time away it demands is necessary and only short term. He also provides great balance in my life, giving me a life outside of triathlon. When we have time together, we rarely talk about training or competing but are just a “typical” couple. Some of our favorite things to do together are very low key and non-competitive like walking around the neighborhood, shopping, sitting in the Jacuzzi, etc.
Q What will make the 2008 Olympic Games a success in your eyes?
Ertel I will feel like I’ve had a successful Olympics if I represent my country well. That means that I will perform to my potential and hopefully either put myself on the podium or help a teammate to get on the podium.
Q Any post-Olympic plans?
Ertel After the Olympics, I will begin teaching again at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Greg and I plan to start a family a few years later and we will continue to reside in Irvine. I plan to continue running and swimming for fitness and probably doing triathlons recreationally for many years to come.
Previous Q&A Articles
Clint Allard (Men's Basketball) June 9, 2008
Jen Myers (Women's Crew) May 27, 2008
Casey Ryan (Men's Track and Field and Men's Basketball) May 21, 2008
Keith Noe (Baseball) May 13, 2008
Liz LaPlante (Women's Tennis Head Coach) April 30, 2008
Sydney Gstettenbauer (Women's Water Polo) April 22, 2008
Sarah Hendy (Women's Track and Field) April 17, 2008
Eric Leserman (Men's Volleyball) April 9, 2008
Danielle Lukk (Softball) April 4, 2008
Chris Franco (Baseball) March 24, 2008
Dan Perdew (Swimming) March 18, 2008
Evan Hsiao (Swimming) March 9, 2008
Eric Rubens (Men's Tennis) February 27, 2008
Melissa Ward (Softball) February 20, 2008
Cameron Sprowles (Fencing) February 13, 2008
Kim Hockett (Women's Water Polo) February 6, 2008
Trevor Decker (Baseball) January 31, 2008
Jordan Lawley (Men's Basketball) January 23, 2008
Jason Spangler (Men's Volleyball) January 5, 2008
Andrew Skewes (Men's Diving) December 26, 2007
Alexis Gaskin (Women's Basketball) December 17, 2007
Aubrey Panis (Women's Swimming) December 2, 2007
Andrew Hatch (Men's Basketball) November 26, 2007
Kevin Klein (Men's Cross Country) November 12, 2007
Kim Adams (Women's Volleyball) November 7, 2007
Ben Miller (Men's Water Polo) October 31, 2007
Alie Avina (Women's Soccer) October 19, 2007
Charity Elliott (Women's Basketball Head Coach) October 15, 2007
Jason Le (Men's Soccer ) October 3, 2007
Rebecca Bailey (Women's Volleyball) September 18, 2007
Amanda Burkhardt (Women's Cross Country) September 10, 2007
Curtis Williamson (Men's Water Polo) September 4, 2007